UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the General Debate of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the UN headquarters in New York, on Sept. 19, 2017. The General Assembly of the United Nations on Tuesday kicked off its annual general debate, with heads of state and government representatives gathering at the UN headquarters to present their views about pressing world issues. (Xinhua/Li Rui)
by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- Nuclear weapons, refugees fleeing violence, terrorism and reform were the universal concerns expressed by speakers cutting across borders as the 72nd General Debate of the UN General Assembly kicked off at the UN headquarters Tuesday.
The week-long annual session gives priority to development. This year's general debate is around the theme "Focusing on people."
Some 90 heads of state, including a reigning monarch, more than 30 heads of government, four vice presidents, three deputy prime ministers and scores of ministers are scheduled to speak before the assembly by next Monday, UN officials said.
Listing rising insecurity, inequality and conflict, and the changing climate, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, "Our world is in trouble. People are hurting and angry."
He said the sense of global community was disintegrating, with societies fragmented and political discourse polarizing.
"Trust within and among countries is being driven down by those who demonize and divide," the UN chief said in his annual report.
However, he added that trust could be restored if people worked together.
Guterres also called for a political solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, saying "we must not sleepwalk our way into war."
Officially kicking off the debate, this year's assembly president, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, delivered the keynote opening speech, highlighting peace and prevention as "the only way to ensure that the United Nations is doing the job for which it was created."
Lajcak called the challenges of poverty, growing inequalities, terrorist attacks and the worsening effects of climate change global challenges. "Every country is coping with at least one. But they are also individual in nature, touching on the lives of each person," he remarked.
Continuing with his "America first" stance, U.S. President Donald Trump asserted that "as president of the United States, I will always put America first," just as other leaders should always put their countries first.
Trump said countries must work in harmony without the United States entering into agreements from which it received nothing in return. "It is in everyone's interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure," he said.
In his over-40-minute speech, Trump talked tough on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), warning that the United States "will have no choice than to totally destroy" the country unless Pyongyang refrains from its nuclear tests and missile launches. But he added that he hoped it would not be necessary.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said the international community should acknowledge its collective failure and find methods to build a durable peace in Syria, now in its seventh year of war.
Recalling that France was a victim of terrorism, he said the world had to react against terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The use of the Internet for such threats should be challenged.
Calling the protection of refugees a moral and political duty, Macron said France has pledged to support the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in opening escape routes wherever required and by upholding the Geneva Convention.
The Geneva Convention lays down the status and treatment of wounded and captured military personnel and civilians during war.
Macron said migration and terrorism, the causes of instability, were political challenges that could be overcome through development.
On climate change, he said the planet was "taking its revenge for the folly of mankind."
The Paris climate agreement was "not up for renegotiation," he emphasized, saying taking it apart would demolish the existing pact between states and between generations. While the agreement could be improved, the international community should not backtrack on it, Macron noted.
However, Macron said he "fully respected" the U.S. decision to leave the accord, and the door was open for Washington's return.
Soft-spoken Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presented a contrast to the colorful Trump and energetic Macron.
She said her country had "come a long way." It could not have done so without the United Nations, especially the stabilization and security provided by the UN Mission in Liberia.
Sirleaf urged the United Nations and its member states to continue to lead and spread the values of democracy, human rights and good governance, while strengthening solidarity for economic transformation and social resilience.
This will be her last appearance before the annual gathering as her term ends in January 2018.
Sirleaf said that 11 years ago, she became Liberia's newly elected president and Africa's first democratically elected woman head of state.
In less than one month, Liberia will hold legislative and presidential elections. For the first time in 73 years, political power would be handed over peacefully and democratically from one elected leader to another, signaling the country's irreversible course towards consolidating its young, post-conflict democracy.